William Yarnel Slack was born in Kentucky in the summer of 1816. Three years later, his family moved to Boone County, Missouri and settled near Columbia. As a young adult, William Slack studied law, passed his bar exam, and then established a private practice in the village of Chillicothe in 1837. Chillicothe was to be his home for the remainder of his days.
In my opinion, Willam Slack has not been given due credit by local histories. I certainly was not aware of his many contributions.
From several sources, a consistent characterization of William Slack emerges:
He could not be accounted handsome (check the pic). He was not considered a great speaker.He was highly intelligent and methodical. He prepared well for any task he undertook. He spoke rather softly, but people listened because they knew he had something important to say. He held his pro-slavery stance with great conviction. In battle, he was absolutely fearless and beloved by his troops. I will provide some support for this profile in what follows.
Prior to his arrival in our then backwater town, he was recognized as being one the key citizens of Columbia that helped raise the sum of $117,000 (25 Million today) to ensure that the University of Missouri would be established there in 1839. It was clear that Slack was already a leader at 21 years of age!
During the Mexican War, Slack raised a company of Livingston County men and served as their Captain in the 2nd Missouri Volunteers. He mustered out of the army in 1847 after fourteen months of service. Upon his return to Chillicothe, he purchased a home at Polk and Washington Streets. His first wife died in about 1848 and he remarried.
In the late 1840's, Slack served in the Missouri General Assembly, where he was noted as a strong pro-slavery advocate. He became a member of the state convention called to develop and ratify the new Missouri state constitution.
In 1854, Attorney Slack was defense counsel for the notorious Joe Slagle who had murdered his brother in law (Benjamin Collins) in what seemed to be cold blood. This famous case was the first murder in Livingston County per our 1886 history.
The depiction of Collins in this obviously one-sided account bothered me as I posted a five-part Judge Joe Slagle story a few months ago in this forum.
It occurred to me that Slagle was still very much alive when the history was compiled and he submitted his side of the story. Finally, I realized that part of this story was based upon a deposition for the defense at Joe's murder trial. It was researched and submitted by his attorney --- William Slack. Slack was well prepared for trial, as always.
This court document characterized the late Mr. Collins in no uncertain terms: he was a drunk, a loudmouth braggart, and a person that had been associated with a "negro show" back in Quincy, Illinois. Even given that, I still marveled how Joe Slagle was found "Not Guilty" by a jury of his peers.
Here is how the incident came down (short form):
Slagle rode up on horseback to Collins and companion who were on foot to Chillicothe. From there, Collins planned to head for California.
Collins' repeated threats against Slagle's life were just that... threats.
Collins didn't own a gun and had a knapsack and banjo strapped on his back.
Slagle responded to Collins' nervous "good day" by shooting him at point blank range with his double-barreled shotgun.
Seeing that Collins still lived, Slagle calmly dismounted and finished the job with barrel number two.
I had not given Atty. William Slack his due in my earlier blog. He convinced the jury that Slagle was entirely justified in his actions. Joe Slagle had a very good lawyer!
Shortly after the start of the Civil War, pro-Confederacy factions in Missouri became organized as the Missouri State Guard (MSG). Slack was appointed by Governor Jackson as Brigader General in command of the 5th Division. He recruited, mustered, and drilled volunteers from twelve Northwest Missouri counties.
The story of Slack's escape from Chillicothe is very interesting and deserves more attention from me in the coming days.
Pro-Slavery sentiment ran very high here in 1861. Consider that in Livingston County, President Lincoln received only two votes in 1860 election!
A Pro-Confederate parade was held in downtown Chillicothe one June afternoon. Slack and his nearly 250 volunteers slipped out of town that evening to nearby SpringHill as 800 Union troops arrived by rail. But for the heroic actions of a teenage girl, Slack might have been killed or captured!
Slack led the MSG at the battles of Carthage and Springfield. He insisted upon leading his troops from the front. They respected and loved their leader and followed him into the Hell they would face. General Slack's risk of death by leading the charge with sword drawn was very high because of his rank and proximity. He ate the same food as his men and never requested special treatment. He able to convince nearly all of his volunteers to stay with him when their service time had expired.
Slack was seriously wounded by a bullet in the left hip at the Battle of Wilson's Creek (near Springfield) in August of that year. Based on this information, Union leadership immediately dispatched 1500 men to Chillicothe in hopes of capturing him. Clearly, the Union Forces considered our General Slack to be an important enemy leader. They had assumed that Slack would return home to recover. Instead, his wife bravely made her way through enemy lines to South Missouri and nursed him back to health.
By the end of October, Slack had recovered sufficiently to resume his field duties. He took command of the 2nd brigade of the Missouri State Guard on January 23, 1862. On March 7 of that year, he was shot again in the left hip during the Battle of Pea Ridge (Elkhorn Tavern) in Northern Arkansas.
He was taken to a nearby house, where he improved and was assumed to be recovering. Because of fear he might be captured, he was transported to a field hospital where his condition worsened. He died on March 21, 1862. He was buried nearby, but in 1880, his remains were exhumed and re-buried in Fayetteville's Confederate National Cemetery.
In closing, here is a stirring tribute to Slack, as it appeared in the Confederacy's Daily Messenger:
None familiar with his capacities of General Slack, will deny that he possessed many of the qualifications requisite to constitute an efficient commander of volunteers. Temperate and abstemious in his habits; impetuous, daring, and courageous, yet prudent, wary, and cautious, he was well calculated for skirmishing, or as a leader in a charge.
But these are not the qualities which alone distinguished him. His mind was bold, clear, and vigorous, and altogether practical; which, added to a sound and penetrating judgment, gave his opinions no ordinary weight in council; while his business and orderly habits enabled him to conduct with ease and accuracy the affairs of his command. He was affable and courteous in his manners, generous and unselfish in his disposition, and kind and indulgent in his nature. His age was about forty five
But that which most distinguished him was his earnest devotion to the cause in which he fell. It was for this he gave up his beautiful home, its enjoyments and associations; it was for this he encountered, with the fortitude of a soldier and patriot, the frosts and snows of winter, and the heat and dust of summer.
It was for this he endured the hardships, toils and privations of one of the longest, most active and bloodiest campaigns recorded, or to be recorded, on the pages of history; it was for this he suffered long and painfully; it was for this he looked death in the face in many shapes and forms; it was for this he died!
Many others of the great and noble of our land did the same, but none endured all more patiently, suffered all more gladly, or gave up their lives more freely. And of all the offerings yet laid upon the altar of State sovereignty and constitutional liberty, there is none purer or nobler than that offered by General W. Y. Slack.
Our William Y. Slack was a great man.